Like Berlioz with his astonishing trilogy Romeo and Juliet, Faust and Benevento Cellini it was a crucial reading marked by intense affinity that seized Jules Massenet and gave inspiration to his Werther from the earthquake of a novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
For the public at large there are essentially two Goethe's; on the one hand with the troubles of being young and his Werther and later Faust and old age on the other. The scene as described by Georges Hartmann, Massenet's publisher, is set on the return trip from a Bayreuth Festival where he and Massenet had seen Parsifal. On the return the two men stopped at the town of Wetzlar. It was in this place that the young Goethe met and fell desperately in love with Charlotte Buff in the 1770's. So desperately that he believed that to survive the intensity of his passion it had to be sublimated and objectified into a work of art.To read The Sufferings of Young Werther and to be young is one of the great events in any budding romantic life. The book has the power of a natural event in which the passions are raised to the heavens and the two lovers merge with forces of nature and the boundless world of dreams. At its' center is a hopeless love that is none the less real, but cannot be acted on or fulfilled in this world. For the character Werther and the man Goethe the alternative was suicide and real men did die as a result of these feelings at this time.
As in Tolstoi and Prokofiev's War and Peace all the great themes and scenes are there. To turn it into opera Massenet rightly reduced it to it's essential elements. There is a drama of truth versus duty, passion overwhelming reason and tradition threatened by this revolution in human feeling as Goethe literally drops a bomb on the foundations of the Age of Reason. The conclusion is a terrible settling up of accounts of the heart. Werther cannot and will not ignore his promptings and if need be will be consumed and destroyed by them rather than live out a life of practical renunciation. Charlotte feels as he does but cannot bear the burden, the terrible weight of the consequences of abandoning family, society and the man she is promised to. No one is really right or wrong, but there a choice and not simply of marriage but the implication of "a world of feeling " either embraced or denied; life lived on the dazzling heights or in the pallid lowlands.
There are no end to great melodic moments and some of operas most memorable are in this work. Pourquoi me reveiller ; O Nature pleine de grace and Charlotte's shattering collapse :
Va! Laisse couler mes larmes,
elles font du bien, ma cherie !
Oh, let my tears flow,
they do me good, my dear !
The tears that go unshed
all fall back into the soul ...
The last scene that on paper looks ridiculous as Werther has already shot himself and must sing lying on the ground, actually works. I saw it years ago with Shicoff and von Stade and the music carries the day. Death is announced in the beginning and there is only the matter of how we intend to confront it that defines us and our relation to this extreme and uncompromising love, at once gift and curse.
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by Ron Moore